How schools can guard against the abuse of some of our most vulnerable children
Safeguarding children has been an important theme in the decade since the Bichard Inquiry of 2004 which led to the creation of the Criminal Records Bureau – now superseded by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). While child protection relates to young people who are at risk of significant harm or have been affected by it, safeguarding refers to the general obligation to keep all our children safe from harm. The gap between safeguarding the 14 million children in the UK and protecting those directly affected by harm or the risk of harm is very broad. The NSPCC’s How Safe Are Our Children report (2013) indicates that around 800,000 children were victims of maltreatment in 2011.
Until recently, the vetting of people working with children was strict and could involve several checks. Since the beginning of 2013, though, legislation has reduced the number of applications to the DBS. Filtering rules now apply that remove from the DBS certificate certain prescribed cautions after six years, or convictions after 11 years.
Who is most at risk?
A balance has to be struck between ensuring the safety of all children, yet avoiding the moral panic that our young people are haunted by adults who wish to harm them. In some ways, children today are safer than in the past. In the UK, the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse is declining, fewer children are dying from assault or suicide (except in Northern Ireland) and the homicide rate is coming down (NSPCC Data). For the vast majority of children and young people, the risk of harm is minimal and “good enough” parenting and a sound education will see them learn to cope with new situations and develop their own sense of security.
There are, however, identifiable groups of children who are at greater risk of harm. The Working Together to Safeguard Children (2013) guidance encourages agencies to provide training for staff and early support and intervention for children and families. The groups considered at greater risk include children who:
- are disabled and have specific additional needs
- have SEN
- are young carers
- show signs of engaging in anti-social or criminal behaviour
- live in challenging circumstances, for example, with adults with issues around mental health, substance abuse or domestic violence.
It is hard to get a clear picture of how the inter-relationships between these factors increase risk further, but the greater the number of stressors, the higher the risk of harm. Sometimes, the ways in which we aim to support children can actually heighten the risk even further, for example, moving young people into the care system and into residential care.
What can schools do?
Understanding the risk factors behind child abuse enables schools to target those children and families at greatest risk and ensure that monitoring processes are particularly robust for those pupils. An effective partnership between the SENCO, designated safeguarding officers and pastoral lead teachers should identify children and siblings with the highest risks on intake to the school and over subsequent terms. By linking the information on the school’s SEN register, those with poor attendance, children who are looked-after, children with multiple exclusions and those who score highly on other risk factors, resources can be effectively focussed.
For a number of reasons, families struggling with these risk factors can appear distrustful of support and can be difficult to engage. They may also respond poorly to school. Early identification offers a period of time to build safe, positive relationships which can prepare the way for coping during more difficult times, when links with staff can become strained.
Protecting children with SEN
Two clear groups of pupils emerge with the highest risk factors: children with physical disabilities – particularly those who are non-verbal – and young people with social or emotional difficulties, especially those with complex challenging behaviour.
Safeguarding Disabled Children (2009) shared data from a large-scale American study which found, in 2000, that children with disabilities were around three to four times more likely to be victims of abuse than other groups of children. The research found that nine per cent of non-disabled children were victims, compared to 31 per cent of those with disabilities. Small scale studies suggest that a similar pattern would be found in the UK.
Children with disabilities and SEN have an increased vulnerability to abusive situations because they may need intimate care and may have cognitive impairments that prevent an understanding of appropriate adult behaviour. A lack of effective communication skills to share concerns and a reliance on adults can also be important factors. The challenge for schools and care providers is to ensure that the need for privacy and dignity is balanced by protection from harm.
In many cases, even children with mild communication difficulties are not taught a sign or symbol vocabulary to allow them to make complaints or describe how injuries occurred. Independent advocacy arrangements are often paltry. Leadership teams in special schools are often acutely aware of these issues, but the less ideal environments elsewhere can sometimes allow good practice to slip, for example, because of an over-reliance on a limited number of carers. An annual audit amongst the staff, perhaps anonymously, may raise issues of concern about safeguarding and create a plan for improvement.
Children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) are particularly at risk of harm from both internal and external stressors. Internal drivers that may lead to harm include a greater likelihood of risk-taking behaviours, poorer impulse control and angry or violent outbursts. External factors could arise, for example, from the characteristics of the family and the environment that the child experiences. Managing young people with (BESD) can be very challenging for staff, who need to ensure that they deal with aggressive or violent incidents in a way that is in-line with high-quality safeguarding practice, and not overly dependent upon physical restraint or inappropriate verbal attacks. Remaining highly professional during these incidents depends on excellent training, shared approaches and a shared ethos.
For both groups of children, entry into residential care is a possibility. Many care settings are good or outstanding, and it is to be hoped that recent care scandals may be a thing of the past. However, it is important to continue to be vigilant. High standards of quality control, mentoring and supervision are important in maintaining safety. Without such safeguards, over-use of restraint, restriction of liberty and abusive punishment regimes are possible. In such settings, dangers might not only come from staff but also from other young people, and risk assessing the mix of residents is crucial.
Safeguarding children and young people with SEN requires understanding, foresight and reflection. Keeping children safe from harm in schools relies on all staff being able to recognise the raised risk factors, identify young people with the greatest levels of risk and create focussed action plans that sufficiently respond to their needs. Keeping open dialogue between staff and raising the importance of safeguarding across the school is essential.
Andrew Hall is currently Associate Headteacher at a special school. He also provides training and consultancy on SEN, autism and safeguarding: